Lottery winner shares the wealth

Cabbie-turned-mayor uses Powerball money to aid Pakistan quake victims

March 12, 2006|By KIM BARKER

BATAGRAM, Pakistan -- The mayor looks at the shabby tents where earthquake victims have lived since their mountain village was destroyed five months ago.

Ihsan Khan, 47, is not like any other government official in this country. He is a former Chicago resident and Northern Illinois University student, a one-time cabdriver in Washington, D.C., and a citizen of both the U.S. and Pakistan. He is also a multimillion-dollar Powerball winner who was elected mayor of his hometown district in Pakistan two days before the devastating Oct. 8 earthquake.

Now Khan is helping his destroyed district with his lottery winnings: $18 million after taxes.

On this day, Khan is not happy with what he sees in the government refugee camp -- the people cooking over stoves in cramped tents, the tent that caught fire the day before, the tents pitched on sticks.

"This is appalling," Khan said. "What you see here -- they could have done better than this."

This is his home, and he feels it is his responsibility. After spending half his life in the U.S., Khan has left his American dream behind, or at least put it on hold, to help the place where he grew up. Khan won election as nazim, or mayor, of Batagram district in the wild North-West Frontier after deciding to run against the local families who had controlled this region for generations.

In Pakistan, the average annual income is less than $500. Even before the earthquake turned buildings into piles of rocks, Batagram was a hardscrabble place nestled in a picturesque mountain valley, essentially a subsistence farming town.

Khan is trying to rebuild the entire district of Batagram, where 4,500 people died in the quake. He said he has spent about $300,000 of his own money on drugs and medical supplies, and tin roofs for shelters. He also plans to build a school.

On a recent afternoon, Khan walked around a refugee camp, home to 3,040 people from a town on the far edge of Batagram district. Many are not happy. They are deferential to Khan and walk up, one by one, to shake his hand and share their sorrows.

The national government expects them to move back to their remote mountain village the next day. This will mean a four-hour drive followed by an eight-hour walk. The people say that they have no homes left.

Sayed Zarin Shah, who guessed he was about 60, pulled his right pants leg up to show off a gnarled scar from an earthquake injury. He leaned on a cane and shook with the effort of standing.

"We don't have a place to go," Shah told Khan.

"You have to go from where you came," Khan replied. "There will be a lot of stuff going with you."

This is a role that Khan is not entirely comfortable with. He does not like politicians or government, although he graduated with a political science degree from Northern Illinois University in 1987. There is little that he can do about regulations that require all refugee camps to close this month. He can only set out plans for rebuilding, which will take years to complete, even with him providing seed money.

Most of his life, Khan seemed to be running as far away as possible from Pakistan and poverty. At about 21, he moved first to the Chicago area, and after marriage, a son and a divorce, to Washington. He lost touch for years with his Pakistan family, who thought he was dead.

Eventually Khan came back home. He married a Batagram woman. But he stayed in Pakistan only a month here, a month there. Always, he returned to D.C., where he drove a cab, making about $3,000 a month.

The dream came to him in the early 1990s -- a "beautiful" dream, one with diamonds and rubies and Khan speaking to a crowded room of "way too many people." Then the numbers popped up: 2-4-6-17-25-31.

Khan says he played those numbers for years. In November 2001, he hit a $55.2 million Powerball jackpot. Khan chose a lump-sum award, which after taxes worked out to about $18 million.

He bought a million-dollar home in Virginia. He started an education foundation named after his late mother. And then he moved home.

At one point, while walking through the refugee camp, a crowd of 50 men surrounded him.

Gul Zarhamed, 28, wanted to know if the government would give him a tent. Other men started shouting questions -- about money, about permanent homes, about what Khan will do.

"I will also be with you people," he said.

Nobody seems to believe him. Khan walked away, shaking his head.

"I would be worried, too," he said. "It's not the best of anything here. But it's still something."

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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